Standing at the back of church to greet parishioners after Sunday Mass is always a joyful time. So often it is a young family that becomes the center of attention because of the presence and sometimes antics of the youngest members. But equally moving is the presence of seniors, older couples, whose devotion to each other is so evident. The importance of the family is something we have always been able to take for granted probably because so many of us have experienced its blessings. But sadly that is not as true today. We have seen a significant cultural change in recent times.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, from his long pastoral experience, recognized these changes and the challenges they present for Catholics today as he called for a Church-wide reflection on the importance of marriage and the family. Back in February 2014, the Pope announced a process that would include two gatherings of bishops — Synods — with the World Meeting of Families being held in between them, in the hope of engaging as many of the faithful as possible in this necessary and very important discussion. Meanwhile, the Holy Father began a catechetical series on the family in his Wednesday general audiences.
In the October 2014 Synod, the members were asked to reflect on the challenges that families face in our highly secular culture. In the 2015 Synod that ended with the Mass celebrated on Sunday, October 25, by Pope Francis, we turned our attention to the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World. Since I had the privilege of participating in both of these synods, I would like to share these few reflections on what I think was a very fruitful three-week-long meeting this past October in Synod 2015 and what it means as we move forward.
Before going into the work and results of this gathering, it might be helpful briefly to review exactly what is a synod of bishops and what does it do. These questions are all the more appropriate as we celebrated at this Synod the 50th anniversary of this ecclesial institution.
Synods in General
Synods were intended by Blessed Pope Paul VI, who established them in 1965, to be an expression of the episcopal collegiality of the Second Vatican Council. Just as the pope is the successor of St. Peter in the governance of the Church, the bishops as a body — or college — are the successors of the apostles. As such, they share in the teaching and governing of the Church in communion with the pope who is their head.
Because the experience of the Council had been such a profound source of renewal for the Church, synods were seen as a limited way to continue this dynamism. The Synod which just concluded was the 14th Ordinary Synod since its beginning. Such gatherings typically take place every three years.
There are also extraordinary synods which, like the one in 2014, are called to deal with matters “which require a speedy solution” (Code of Canon Law, c. 346 §2) and which demand “immediate attention for the good of the entire Church” (Order of the Synod of Bishops). Last year’s gathering was the third of these since the synods began.
Two Synods, One Process
The two Synods which met in the past year were a unique experience for the Church. Last year’s meeting was called to prepare material for this year’s general assembly. The preparation for the Synod included a wide consultation of local churches and the lay faithful throughout the world and so was also an exercise in intensive listening. Hence the two Synods were a journey undertaken by the whole Church. Indeed, at the 50th anniversary celebration for the synods, Pope Francis remarked that the word “synod” means “walking together—laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome.”
At the outset of this latest Synod, Pope Francis emphasized that the gathering was to be characterized by open discussion of the issues facing the Church in its ministry to families. However, this was not meant to take place in the sense of a political or parliamentary discussion, forging new teaching, but rather an act of communal discernment by the bishops on behalf of the Church. This discernment was to be carried out with and under the Pope (cum Petro et sub Petro) to guarantee the unity of the Church in the faith entrusted to her. This reality was tangibly expressed by Pope Francis’s presence with us for most of the general sessions of the Synod.
To engage in such an act of communal discernment, the Holy Father challenged us to open ourselves to the action of the Holy Spirit. Indeed Pope Francis told us that opening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit was the very “methodology of the Synod.” To do this, he said, would require of us “apostolic courage. . .evangelical humility and confident, trusting prayer.”
This collegial act of bishops and the pope together discerning the Holy Spirit’s work in the People of God is something Pope Francis sees as a vital part of the Church’s life. It is a way to promote “a healthy decentralization” in the Church in greater recognition of the role of local churches and their bishops. It also serves to promote the wholesome engagement of all of the Church’s parts and members.
It has been my great privilege to participate in eight synods beginning with the one in 1990 that gave us the well-known document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, on the formation of priests, that continues to be the touchstone for that ministry today. Over the years, there has been gradual improvement in the methodology of the synods to encourage fuller discussion. The hallmark of this Synod was its openness and the engagement of so many in the process that concluded with the final report. This communion and collaboration was expressed in the consensus that supported all 94 sections of the concluding document.
In one sense the Synod had already accomplished a significant goal even before any document was published. This synodal journey has been an open, inviting and transparent one. These two Synods established a new frame of reference which includes inviting the whole Church to be involved in discussions on the life and outreach of the Church. The Synod has already accomplished the fact that such open, invitational, transparent conversations need to be a part of the life of the Church today.
Since Pope Paul VI’s issuance of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, following the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization, popes have responded to synodal gatherings with such documents. However, because Pope Francis wants to highlight the importance of the discussions and these events themselves in the life and governance of the Church, he immediately authorized the final consensus report to be made public as a first step. There is also some thought that he might simply allow the fruits of the Synod to be communicated to the Church in other ways. Regardless of how this communication takes place, the Holy Father is clear that, in this process of listening and discernment, the final word, as it always has, belongs to the pope.
The Fruit of the Synod
The working paper with which we began our efforts developed over the three weeks of discussion into the document called the final report. The text of 94 distinct sections, each usually one paragraph long, is the fruit of our deliberations and enjoyed overwhelming support.
Following the emphasis of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,
Gaudium et Spes, the report begins with “scrutinizing the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel” (GS, No. 4). Here this meant looking at both “lights and shadows” surrounding the Church and the family in the world today — cultural, anthropological, social, and developmental. Along with many challenges, the discussion highlighted the signs of hope and renewal within the family and the rich variety of cultural resources that enriches its lived expression across the globe.
The second part of the final report presents the “Gospel of the Family.” To speak of a “Gospel of the Family” is to say that the family is “Good News” for the world. As Pope Francis said earlier at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the family is “a workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection.”
The Synod considers the family’s role in the “divine pedagogy” (that is, the way God approaches and communicates himself to us in revelation and the Church’s Tradition), the family’s presence in the life of the Church, and its path to growth and fullness. The aim of this part of the discussion and text was the discernment and affirmation of the family’s vocation in the world today and how the Church can better foster it.
The third and final part of the Synod report focuses on the mission of the family today. In addition to treating challenging issues such as improving the Church’s pastoral response to the divorced and civilly remarried, same-sex attracted persons, and wounded families — all of which often garner the attention of the media — this part of the discussion focuses on many other issues. These include the family’s role in evangelization, the factors and persons which help to form the family, the gift of children and the challenges and blessings of raising them.
Many of those taking part in the discussions noted the correspondence between this structure and the method widely used in pastoral theology known as “see, judge, act.” The Church is called to see reality around herself (in this case in regard to the family), evaluate this reality in the light of Gospel, and then act pastorally in a way that addresses the concrete needs of the present situation.
While there were some differences of opinion expressed in the Synods as to appropriate pastoral responses to specific challenges facing the Church, there was far deeper unity in holding to the substance of the Church’s doctrine on marriage, family life, and Catholic moral teaching. The discussion concerned how best to affirm both the truth of the Church’s teaching and the reality of God’s merciful love at the heart of our Christian life in shaping pastoral responses to specific challenges. It seemed that everyone concurred on the idea that truth and mercy, orthodoxy and accompaniment, are not opposed, but work together in the Church’s ministry.
It is clear that the revealed truth about marriage and family, grounded in human nature, according to God’s plan and proclaimed in the Church’s teachings, was universally affirmed. However, we faced, as most recognize, the realization that the Catholic vision of marriage and family, the Catholic vision of love, is radically different from that of so much of our contemporary culture. The vision promoted extensively in entertainment, academia and, increasingly, the law has greatly weakened marital and parental relationships and presents an alternate worldview to many, especially the young.
This state of affairs presents a particular challenge to Church ministry today. We are called to proclaim the teaching of the Church with clarity and at the same time to meet each person where that person is. The two go together. Speak the truth and minister with love.
Another important action which helps express the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family is the positive witness of Christian families. As if to emphasize this, during the Synod, Pope Francis canonized together the married couple, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin. Their life of faith, the fruit of which included their daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is a wonderful example of the vocation of married people and the blessing they can be to those around them.
The Synod process is now concluded, but as the Holy Father noted in his closing address, our journey together continues so as to bring “to every part of the world, to every diocese, to every community and every situation, the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the Church and the support of God’s mercy!”
What Does the Synod Mean for the Church?
What does this event mean for all of us who make up the Church and for those of other faiths or of no particular faith who are interested in what the Church has to say to and about family?
As the fruits of the Synod are shared with the whole Church, then the responsibility for action becomes the responsibility of all of the members of the Church — both families and those who seek to minister to them.
The Synod invites us to recognize that Christian families themselves are called to be active agents of the Church’s mission of evangelization. Families and their members are called to share this Good News, to help care for and form other families, and especially to accompany families that are wounded or struggling. This is an integral part of their vocation and mission.
Such an affirmation means that families themselves need to be formed and equipped to live out this calling and mission. This requires better catechesis for all Christians in the “Gospel of the Family” and the family’s role in the divine plan. It calls for marriage preparation which is deeper and more effective. And it requires ongoing formation and support for couples who have married and for parents in their role as educators in the faith. Accompaniment of the family does not apply only to those which are wounded or challenged by hardship.
The Church and her families need to walk together on the path of the New Evangelization. Families themselves are both objects and active subjects of this effort. The Church is herself composed of families who are her living cells. Indeed the Church is herself a family — the family of God — and is meant to be a living sign of unity and charity for the wider human family.
As this Synod ended, a takeaway that I thought significant includes the realization that we have witnessed a new openness in how the Church looks today at pastoral problems, issues and practices. Pope Francis is engaging the whole Church in the reflection on how best to carry out our mission. He asks us to trust in the Spirit, to be open to new pastoral possibilities (always within the context of the Church’s received tradition) and to avoid the rigidity that can close us to sharing God’s mercy. Another enduring blessing from the Synod is the affirmation of both the need for the ministers of the Church to proclaim the fullness of the teaching and, at the same time, to meet individual believers where they are and discern with them how best we can accompany them in drawing closer to the Lord.
Much work remains to be done to support married couples and families, while also helping to heal those in wounded or broken relationships, as well as evangelizing the culture to promote and protect those foundational blocks of society. While we can expect our Holy Father now to take pastoral steps to support these goals of the Synod, each of us plays a part in the renewal of marriage and family through our pastoral care of married couples and families.
CARDINAL WUERL is Archbishop of Washington, D.C.